Mothers who breast-feed their children may help to protect them from developing celiac disease, an intolerance to a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, scientists said on Tuesday.
In a review of 15 studies, they found that the longer children are breast fed the less likely they are to suffer from the illness.
“Breast feeding may offer protection against the development of celiac disease,” said Dr Tony Akobeng of the Central Manchester Children’s University Hospital in England.
But he and his team said in a report published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood they are not sure whether breast feeding delays the onset of symptoms of the illness or provides permanent protection against it.
People who suffer from celiac disease have an intolerance to gluten and are unable to eat wheat, barley and rye products. It is a genetic disease in which the immune system damages the small intestine when gluten is eaten.
The review, which involved more than 4,000 children, showed that if babies were breast-fed when they were introduced to solid foods containing gluten, it cut their risk of suffering from the illness by 52 percent compared to other youngsters.
The researchers said they are not sure how breast feeding protects a child from the illness. They suspect it could reduce their exposure to gluten or curb the immune system’s response to the protein.
Celiac disease can produce a variety of symptoms including weight loss, diarrhea, fatigue, muscle cramps and abdominal pain and bloating. The only treatment is to eat a gluten-free diet.